8 March 2019
By Kirsten Henson
Rising to the carbon challenge
We have 12 years to avert climatic breakdown according to leading scientists.
Following this terrifying news, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on my own abominable carbon footprint; a carbon footprint largely driven by flights, both short and long haul taken, not for pleasure, but for business.
However, the purpose of this blog is not to extol my otherwise carbon virtuous child-free, low-meat, slipper-wearing in the winter, second-hand furniture, driven a car twice in 15 years, lifestyle. Largely because I can’t help but roll my eyes when people take the moral upper ground for life-style choices they have made; choices that generally are not driven by the desire to avoid climatic disaster but are simply a preferred way of living. I want to reflect on the lack of change in the way the vast majority approach the built environment following the IPCC report. The irony of me writing this blog as I fly to Tokyo to deliver a one-day workshop to the Olympic Organising Committees of Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022 is not lost on me.
At KLH we have always been fortunate to work with clients that have a global conscience, but I have recently been frustrated by the general unwillingness to rock the boat; a reluctance to point out that the emperor has no clothes.
Recently an architect offered a building that met the client’s brief but with a somewhat inefficient form factor and façade design, and given the open location of the site an arbitrarily large grid spacing to deliver the open-plan working required by the client. These design decisions lead to an increase in embodied carbon as well as operational carbon. The client has set a target to reduce the embodied carbon of the baseline design by 15%, but delivering this reduction against what we perceive to be a rather unjustifiably high baseline, does seem to rather miss the point.
Dare I challenge, the recent recipient of the 2018 Stirling Prize and the 2019 BREEAM Awards: the Bloomberg Offices in London? With an excessively opulent interior and a domineering heavy-weight exterior, one has to question how this building can justifiably win awards that claim to have sustainability at their core. Perhaps even more damaging is the fact that it is purported to be the most expensive office building ever constructed. The message we are peddling is clear: sustainable design costs more.
To counteract this, reference should be made to the Olympic Velodrome - a building heralded for its architectural beauty and efficient design. It uses 30% less material than any other equivalent velodrome across the globe, largely due to a great collaboration between architect, engineer, contractor and supply chain to realise a lightweight cable net roof structure. The innovative roof solution not only reduced the programme by 3 months but also delivered a £5.8million cost saving.
Our current project is not alone in its carbon conundrum. The mantra of building for flexibility and adaptability appears to have become an excuse for the over-design of our buildings and infrastructure.
While adapting or maintaining structures in 25 or 30 years may be disruptive to business function, I can’t help thinking that as the energy supply decarbonises and new innovative methods for producing near zero carbon cement and steel become commonplace, this alternative must be considered a viable option rather than throwing more concrete and steel in to our structures today ‘just in case’.
I find myself increasingly frustrated by the lack of change in our industry. There is a prevalence of sustainability consultants ham-strung in to telling a ‘good’ story rather than an honest story, or hiding behind the narrow definition of a BREEAM rating in lieu of sustainable building design.
We have 12 short years to transition to a net zero carbon global society. We already know we cannot rely on the government, for our leaders have historically proved themselves panderers to media and industry rather than sticking to policies that demonstrate leadership in the climate change arena. Professionals in the built environment need to start raising the carbon awareness of clients by demonstrating an honest and transparent approach to life-cycle carbon rather than hiding behind clever calculations that offer the politically correct answer.